US market is no pipedream for Point-to-Point handlers
Remember an old TV advertisement from the 1990s for the conglomerate Hanson? The catchline was "a company from over here doing rather well over there". There, of course, referred to the USA, the world's richest nation, where every company hopes to break through. Hanson, of course, was the first sponsor of the Epsom Derby through its Ever Ready brand of batteries.
If we include Ireland in the "over here", Belfast Banter is the latest equine personification of the Hanson byline. The winner of a maiden auction hurdle at Galway in October 2020 burst on to the UK scene when winning the County Hurdle at Cheltenham in March 2021 at a long-priced 33/1 for Peter Fahey. He returned a considerably shorter price of 11/4 when following up 3 weeks later in the Betway Top Novices Hurdle, his first Grade I success, at Aintree.
Returning to graded company the following November, he was no match for Sceau Royal in Wincanton's Elite Hurdle, a race Alan King's charge had made his own, before becoming the first Grade I winner to be sold in an online auction by the UK's leading proponent of online bloodstock vending, Thoroughbid. Having been touted as a potential Champion Hurdle horse though, the Fahey charge was sold westward to the USA, going under the virtual hammer at £130,000.
The US Jumps scene is considerably smaller than its Irish or British equivalent, yet the right type of horse can excel there. And in recent years, the attractive prize funds have been luring a succession of British and Irish-trained horses on raids to plunder the greenback. Brain Power, Hewick, and others have trodden a path to Far Hills and other east coast marquee fixtures with considerable success, fuelled by US - based riders who are British or Irish by birth, either using the summer months constructively or emigres achieving more success out west than might have been the case in the UK or Ireland.
Belfast Banter is the latest of these success stories. After a series of placed efforts in largely graded company, the 8 year old gelding topped up his Grade I tally at Saratoga last weekend with a win in the $150,000 A P Smethwick Memorial Steeplechase, a confusing title for a Grade I handicap hurdle. Held up, and scratching the paint on the inner all the way round, Brian Foley took it up with 2f to go to win by 6 1/2l.
Trainer Cyril Murphy remarked, “I believed, coming here, we would win. But I didn’t think he would do it like that. It gives you something to think about moving forward, but today was to be his day from my perspective. What happens going forward, we haven’t even determined. There is no shortage of options, with lucrative prizes on offer back at Saratoga and Belmont over the next two months before the autumn season takes Jumping regionally across Virginia and Maryland.
In these days of stretched finances and poor returns from the UK scene, it's a constant surprise that more trainers are not thinking outside the box. Business models like those of Willie Mullins, Tom George, Sophie Leech and Shark Hanlon, not afraid to travel good quality horses to win the world's best Jump races, are diversifying and allaying the risk from remaining solely in the UK racing market.
Nor is this just a pipedream for people following the Point-to-Point circuit. There are plenty of horses rated 130+ who are competing between the flags. Belfast Banter was rated just 129 when winning the County Hurdle.
Everyone loves a winner, all the more so if it's a big race abroad. Time to spread your wings, lads.